“Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain

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September 22, 2013

I thoroughly enjoyed “Quiet:The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain, about the 1/3 of our population who consider themselves introverts. It spoke to me because it described me so well. There is a ‘quiz’ on page 13, on which I scored 16 out of 20 for introvertedness. It has already opened my eyes to why I react to a situation in a certain way and why you might react in another. Neither is good or bad, just different. In fact, there is great value in having a mix of gregarious socializers and quiet thinkers. Not only does Cain help elucidate these differences, she helps us understand how they affect our individual lives, relationships with others, and our experiences in education and business.

Cain acknowledges that any one person has some qualities of extroverts (talkative, comfortable in the spotlight, risk taker, quick decision maker, group leader) and introverts (quiet, calm, risk and conflict averse, good problem solver, independent worker, quiet mediator, focused on one task at a time). In general, she says, introverts are less likely to be drawn by wealth or fame, and more likely to listen and think carefully before they speak; they may prefer writing to talking. They don’t necessarily avoid socializing, but prefer deeper conversations with one or two people over small talk with many. They often become scientists, authors, artists or writers, as solitude suits their needs and fires up their creativity. Charles Darwin and Marie Curie are among them. Points in the book are made through many anecdotes, including ones about Dale Carnegie, Steve Wozniak – ‘the nerd soul of Apple’, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt – two very different sorts who used each others strengths to work together.

Cain recounts how Americans have become obsessed with sports and movie stars over the past several decades, and what she calls the Extrovert Ideal. At the same time, there has been an increase in the diagnosis of ‘shyness’, a more extreme form of introvertedness, and ‘social anxiety disorder’. This is at least in part due to our adoption of the Extrovert Ideal. One problem that is addressed throughout the book is that 1/3 of the population would describe themselves as introverted, and many of us are OK with that. However, many of our schools and businesses have come to see this as a problem.

This has practical implications – often teachers report to a parent that their child isn’t socializing ‘enough’; that they are sitting alone reading or building something. Or a person is passed over for a promotion because they’re not ‘out there’ enough. What is stressed by Cain is that if a child has a few close friends but prefers personal time, that’s OK!. In a business, when there are only outgoing risk takers, that’s not OK. She points out that failing to listen to a quieter, thoughtful warning voice may have contributed to Enron’s collapse; on the other hand, some businesses have undoubtedly failed for lack of extroverts – i.e. not having someone comfortable enough to sing its praises. The theme repeats itself – we all benefit from a mix of both.

Cain describes clinical research regarding introvertedness in lay terms. One of the most memorable studies for me (p. 99) was done by Jerome Kagan, a developmental psychologist. In 1989, he studied 500 infants and followed them until they were 11 years old. He took four month old infants and exposed them to unfamiliar voices, popping balloons, colorful mobiles and the scent of alcohol. Twenty percent were ‘high reactive’ babies who pumped their arms and screamed, 40% were ‘low reactive’, staying quiet and moving minimally, and the remaining 40% fell between the extremes. I would have guessed that the screaming arm pumpers turned out to be extroverts. It turns out, these ‘high reactors’ mostly developed serious, cautious personalities and the calmer ones were more relaxed, confident and outgoing as teens. It seems that even from birth, introverts are bothered by many sensory inputs, while the quiet babies were unmoved by novelty and ended up craving more risky, exciting experiences.

From more recent research, we see there are true physiologic differences in that extroverts are literally cooler to the touch, and sweat less. So, at least part of the differences among us are inborn. The rest develops as personality, depending on experiences. It is easy to extrapolate from this that a child who is unmoved by somewhat frightening stimuli can have very different outcomes in adulthood depending on his ‘opportunities’ as a teen – i.e. exposure to criminal/drug culture, vs exposure to rigorous sports programs or competitive academic ones. The same drive for risk taking, novelty, and taking charge will turn out two very different adults in these situations.

There are many practical applications of these findings in schools, workplaces and relationships. During childhood, Cain advises, “… parents need to step back from their own preferences and see what the world looks like to their quiet children.” The recent trend to use open class or office space and ‘group think’ projects caters to the extroverts and minimizes the effectiveness of those of us who think clearly and more critically in a quiet place. We might prefer not to speak up against a majority opinion in a group setting.

Groups may be led by the most outspoken members, even though they may not have the best, most thoughtful ideas. In fact, an introvert might be the best to be in charge of others who take initiative since introverts can encourage others, but prefer not to dominate the situation themselves. In preparing for talks in front of large groups, while extroverts may feel free to ‘wing it’, Cain encourages introverts to thoroughly prepare so they can focus on their one project. Otherwise the other stimuli in the room – people’s faces, lights, etc – create too many distractions – like the ones that had the babies thrashing about. Speaking about something that really matters deeply to the speaker also eases the stress of making a presentation.

I was on vacation in the Caribbean when I read this book, and marveled at how this author could predict my behavior without knowing me. I wanted to try something new while I was away and decided to learn how to captain a hobeycat – a flat version of a small sailboat with enough room for 4 people to sit along the edges. My husband and I went out with an instructor, and after about 10 minutes, one of us was to try our hand. Despite the fact that this was my idea, and I knew I understood the principles, I deferred to my husband that day; I said I’d return the next day to try. In the meantime, I reviewed the process in my head, felt confident, and went out the next day and did well. I just had to do it my way, with the need to feel confident before jumping into it. I like to try new things, but I’m not a risk taker. I prefer to focus on one thing at a time and do it well – just like Cain said.

From a personal mental health perspective, Cain encourages us to step out of our comfort zone at times, but to make sure to recognize and satisfy our own needs – which could be a quiet cup of coffee before anyone else is awake, or shooting the breeze with 20 loud friends, depending on our natural tendencies. At work, we need to make sure there’s at least a little time to escape to our most comfortable zone, even if we spend much of the day in the ‘other’ zone – think of an introverted salesperson or extroverted computer programmer. Similarly, we need to recognize that our friends, family members and co-workers may have very different needs, many of which were determined before birth and can’t be easily changed. It’s not that one is better than the other, they’re just different. After reading this book, I see all of this much more clearly.